Jewish catacombs at Rome’s Villa Torlonia

A fascinating burial site may soon be opened to the general public.

By
July 18, 2010 03:41
4 minute read.
Catacombs

Catacombs 311. (photo credit: Irving Spitz)

 
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ROME – Cremation represented one of the usual burial practices for pagan Romans. With the emergence of Christianity, burials began to take place in catacombs. This word is derived from the Greek meaning “within the quarries.” Catacombs are underground cemeteries consisting of intricate labyrinths or tunnels with recesses for burial chambers.

There are more than 60 sites of catacombs in Rome which date from the end of the second to the early fifth century CE.

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The vast majority of catacombs represent the final resting places of Christians, but there are also several of Jewish origin. One of these is situated in the gardens of the Villa Torlonia in the northeast of Rome. This villa was built in the first half of the 19th century for the wealthy banking Torlonia family. In 1929 it was taken over by the Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. After his death in 1945, the villa and the gardens remained unused for many years, but have now been restored and are open to the public.

In 1918, while conducting alterations in the very extensive gardens, workers stumbled on ancient catacombs.

Excavations revealed two separate catacombs which had been united. This was shown to be a large burial ground for the Jews of the period. These catacombs are currently closed to the general public. I was fortunate to be taken on a tour by Cristiana-Barbara Pazienti, press representative of Atlazio, an agency which promotes tourism in Rome, and Simona Morretta, a senior archeologist from Rome’s State Archeological Commission.

The long narrow passageways are surrounded on both sides by multiple levels of niches, or loculi, carved out of the rock. These loculi extend from the ceiling to the floor.

Bodies were placed in these niches which were then sealed with rubble and bricks and then coated over with a layer of lime. In addition there is also a geniza, a depository where holy documents were deposited. These catacombs are extensive, extending for more than 13,000 square meters with over 1,000 meters of galleries on the two floors. To access them, one has to descend a series of stairs.



THE MAIN interest in these catacombs is the plethora of beautiful colored frescos on the walls and part of the vaulted ceilings. These represent characteristic iconographic Jewish symbols and many are in an excellent state of preservation. These include the seven-branched menora, shofar, ark with the law tablets, etrog, lulav, circumcision knife, cruse of oil and matzot. There are also depictions which may possibly represent the façade of the Temple destroyed in 70 CE by Titus.

Additional frescoes include geometric patterns, grapevines, birds, plants and fish. These are not specific to Jewish catacombs and are also seen in those of Christian origin. Not unexpectedly, there are no depictions of humans consistent with the Ten Commandments which prohibited displays of graven images. There are also stamped tiles with the name of the ancient Roman workshop.

Interestingly enough, the inscriptions found in these and other Jewish catacombs are in Greek and not Hebrew.

Radiocarbon testing using organic material incorporated during the construction of the catacombs was conducted by Prof. Leonard V. Rutgers. This revealed that these catacombs date from about 100 BCE (Rutgers et al., Nature, 2005). According to Rutgers, these specific catacombs came into general use in the first century and predate Christian catacombs by at least 100 years. This implies that burial of the dead in catacombs may have begun as a Jewish custom and that it was subsequently adopted by the Christians.

On the other hand, it should be noted that other archeological findings such as oil lamps found in the catacombs of Villa Torlonia date from the end of the second to the early fifth century CE. Thus the question of the precise dating of these catacombs is not definitely resolved. It should be remembered that the Roman Jewish Diaspora community is the second oldest in the world and dates back to the first century BCE. Jews would have likely chosen to bury rather than cremate their dead since cremation is prohibited by Jewish law. Roman jurisdiction forbade burial places in the city itself and in view of the scarcity of land, catacombs were established in the soft volcanic rock outside the city walls.

Today the extensive gardens of Villa Torlonia are a large municipal park. The villa itself is opulently decorated.

The central feature is the two-story high ballroom and vault, lined with paintings, stuccoes and marbles. On the second floor is Mussolini’s bedroom with the original furniture.

The management of the catacombs was originally under the direction of the Pontifical Commission of Sacred Archeology. The current custodian is Rome’s State Archeological Commission. Because of dangers of rock falls, noxious gases and the issue of preservation of the frescoes, these catacombs are closed to the general public.

Discussions are currently under way with archeologists and the Jewish authorities in Rome with a view of eventually opening this fascinating place to tourists. It is anticipated that the restoration of the catacombs in Villa Torlonia will begin at the end of current year.

The writer, emeritus professor of medicine, is an avid traveler and photographer. He writes, reviews and lectures on medical topics, music, art, history and travel. Additional pictures from this as well as other trips can be seen on www.pbase.com/irvspitz.


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